RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, ERIC KOLENICH
Virginia State University has been underfunded by $275 million during the past three decades, according to a federal report. The lost money could have gone toward more financial aid, more students or more programs, said VSU President Makola Abdullah.
Under federal law, states are required to equitably fund universities founded under the Morrill land grant acts of 1862 and 1890. Virginia Tech was founded under the first act, and VSU, a historically Black university, is affiliated with the second.
But Virginia has allocated significantly more money to Virginia Tech on a per-student basis, based on data gathered from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Survey and compiled by the U.S. departments of Education and Agriculture.
The problem isn’t limited to Virginia. The federal agencies called on Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the governors of 15 other states to address their underfunded historically Black colleges and universities. Altogether, the predominantly white colleges received $13 billion more than the historically Black schools.
In 1862, the Morrill Act allowed states to open colleges focused on agriculture and mechanics that were funded by the sale of federal land. The school that became Virginia Tech opened 10 years later.
The Second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, required states to ensure Black students could attend land grant colleges. Virginia Tech was restricted to white students, so the state of Virginia assigned land grant status to Hampton University. In 1920, the state transferred the status to VSU, which had opened in 1882.
An additional $275 million would have gone a long way, Abdullah said. The money would have provided more opportunities for students and for farmers in the area. As a land grant school, VSU helps small farmers in the region.
“Underfunding really isn’t measured in money, but in a lack of opportunity,” Abdullah said.
Agriculture is still a big part of VSU. The campus’s farm grows raspberries, ginger and edamame and is home to goats and sheep, said Robert Corley, the university’s dean of land grant programs. The university gives tours of its farm and reaches out to elementary schools, such as nearby Ettrick Elementary, to explain how crops are grown, where food comes from and how to plant seeds in their own school gardens.
VSU connects with small-scale farmers, places its own students in internships and runs nutrition programs for the community. VSU could do so much more with a higher level of funding, Corley said.
The state has a formula for distributing funds to its 15 public universities, but colleges can petition for more, Abdullah said.
Leaders at Virginia Commonwealth University have long called for a new formula, saying schools that educate low-income and first-generation students need a bigger piece of the pie, because it’s more expensive to educate those students. They need more resources, such as counselors, and more one-on-one direction from faculty and staff.
VSU is in a similar situation. Nine out of every 10 VSU students receive financial aid, and two out of every three receive Pell Grants.
A report released in 2021 called Virginia’s funding model “irrational, inequitable and unjust,” citing the fact that the College of William & Mary received more money per student than Old Dominion University, Radford University and George Mason University, even though those colleges enroll more low-income students.
The General Assembly called on the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to study the funding model, said Bob Spieldenner, a spokesperson for the council. SCHEV made recommendations last year, and the General Assembly has created a subcommittee to study them. But the subcommittee isn’t scheduled to take action until December of next year.
Right now, there isn’t a comprehensive way to measure whether an institution is underfunded or overfunded, compared with other colleges, Spieldenner said.
Recently, VSU has been funded well compared with Virginia Tech, which the federal agencies noted in their letter. VSU received about $15,000 per in-state student, while Virginia Tech got about $9,000 per in-state student.
Virginia Tech is able to command more revenue through tuition and fees. Its students come from wealthier families, on average, and Tech charges in-state students about $15,000 per year for tuition and fees. VSU charges about $10,000.
According to the governor’s office, VSU’s higher level of funding began 10 to 15 years ago.
“Virginia has made substantial increases in per-student funding with Gov. Youngkin allocating more funding than any previous governor,” said Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor.
Still, the historic inequity between the two schools has drawn complaints. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, called it “unacceptable” and said “those investments could have supported more infrastructure, more student services and the ability to compete for research grants to better serve Virginia’s students. We need to do better.”
Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected Black governor, says most historically Black schools did not originally meet the state’s definition for a public school. They were forced to open as private schools, denying them most state funding, he wrote in a Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion column. The majority of Black doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals came from historically Black schools.
“This is not a Black or partisan issue,” he said, “but it is critical to address and to make retroactive investments for past shortcoming.”